Account planning as a distinct function started in advertising agencies about 40 years ago. Over the years it has come to be seen as made-up of certain skills and key functions, the three core planning activities being: research and the generation of consumer and brand insights, writing creative briefs that exhibit a deep brand understanding - and evaluation of the effectiveness of any work.

In recent years planning has been increasingly adopted by PR agencies as an additional service and as a point of differentiation. They have looked at planning core functions and sought to graft them onto their previous offer. This allows an agency to claim it offers strategy, insight and results-driven work.

But any self-respecting PR agencies, whether purporting to offer planning or not, would always claim to offer advice that is strategic, based on some thinking and produce work that is cost-effective and results-driven. This, among other reasons, probably explains why despite much chatter about PR planning, it is yet to make substantial inroads into agencies. Many agencies when confronted by the checklist of planning craft skills would claim ‘well we do that anyway’. So what’s happening?

What’s happening is that although some of the functions of planning are being adopted, its core purpose is being ignored and not integrated into the way PR agencies work. This is an enormous shame because other changes in the world of communications make planning ever more important for the generation of successful PR campaigns.

The simplest but still most powerful definition of the purpose of planning is to act as ‘the voice of the consumer’ within all the meetings, presentations and thinking sessions that produce campaigns. When it comes to debating the message, the messenger and the likely results, the planner’s role is to keep everyone focused on the question of ‘what’s in it for the consumer?’ Why should consumers believe the message, like or engage with the messenger, or act/think in the intended way afterwards? The core focus of planning is the consumer. [For ‘consumer’ also read publics: be it trade or corporate, or any other stakeholders one wishes to influence]

The craft skills of consumer understanding and research, developing appropriate strategies, and evaluation and measurement all arise out this focus on representing the interests, views and needs of the clients’ target audiences.

There’s a problem with current attempts to adopt planning within PR agencies. You might have the functions, but without this core purpose being fully understood and embraced it’s a bit like having a car but without its engine. The car looks great but doesn’t really take you anywhere.

Given the changes in the communications world, this is increasingly a massive missed opportunity for PR.

Historically PR agencies worked largely through media relations. The audiences were primarily journalists. In the case of many FMCG brands, retailers, telecoms companies and the like, this is no longer the case. PR now embraces a host of promotional, experiential and of course digital communications routes. And this means that PR increasingly talks directly to consumers rather than through journalists. It is also true to say that editorial staff are increasingly closer to their readership or viewers and are loathe to respond to PR prompts that exhibit no insights into their consumers.

Given all this, it is increasingly beholden on PR agencies seeking to produce outstanding, award-winning and cost-effective work to have genuine and deep people understanding. And the truth is that many don’t because they might make the claims of being strategic, but they haven’t really got what having a planning culture means to an agency - and how it changes its focus.

Firstly and most fundamentally the explosion in digital media opportunities for PR agencies requires them to fully understand the needs, motivations and behaviour of consumers. A random brainstorm under the heading of ‘what are 35-44 year old Scottish women into’, conducted by a bunch of 25-30 year old, London-centric media types is not the most rigorous means of gaining consumer understanding.

Likewise just because we have different means of talking to consumers nowadays doesn’t mean de facto everything new is right. This is merely innovation of doing and consumer planning is much more concerned with innovation of thinking. The key element to get right is the message – to say something relevant and interesting about you and your brand.

Thirdly, when you are totally focused on the consumer, measures of effectiveness are not add-ons but become a natural part of the entire process. In generating a consumer-driven PR campaign you are required to spell out exactly how you believe the campaign will work. In this context ‘work’ does not mean an airy-fairy mumble about changing perceptions. It is a clear description of how the campaign you are proposing will impact on consumer thinking and behaviour in order to deliver the commercial client objectives.

The great benefit of planning and having the consumer at the heart of the PR process is that it tends to bring a good deal of clarity and simplicity to the whole process. Consumers tend to talk English rather than marketing-speak. Planning is sometimes deemed to make things complicated by adding another voice. If this is the case then the problem isn’t planning, it’s the planner. Planning, using its understanding of the consumer, should always help by simplifying marketing communications problems and inspire award-winning, effective work.

The growing relationship therefore between PR and planning should help agencies retool for the demands of a far more consumer-centric age. This means thinking again about how we think PR ‘works’. The classic definition of how public relations works is that it is, according to the PRCA, …

“all about reputation. It's the result of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you. It is used to gain trust and understanding between an organisation and its various publics - whether that's employees, customers, investors, the local community - or all of those stakeholder groups.”

This still holds true but it defines the end-result of PR not how it actually works. A car works by taking you from A to B but it actually works by the engine combusting fuel, to drive motors, which spin wheels, which propel the vehicle.

The purpose of PR might remain the same, but the way it works is changing and planning will increasingly be needed to ensure that the engine of PR works brilliantly. See it in action at The View.

By Andrew Serednyj, 3 December 2009

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